If you examine Cleveland Browns’ defensive backfield from last year, one thing really stands out: the cornerback group is very good. There is a second part to this observation, however, and that is the safety group.
There, any Browns fan would find some issues with defensive backfield coach Jeff Howard’s group. And so, the safety room evolved over the 2022 season.
In Week 1, the starters were John Johnson, III plus Grant Delpit. Behind them, Richard LeCounte, Ronnie Harrison, and the undrafted rookie D’Anthony Bell gave good depth. This is odd because normally clubs only keep four safeties. But since DC Joe Woods played so many 4-2-5 groupings, it was assumed another safety would be required.
Another undrafted rookie claimed from the Seattle Seahawks was Bubba Bolden of the University of Miami who was added to the practice squad (PS) while Jovante Moffatt was on-again, and off-again as a roster/PS member before finally being cut.
LeCounte had been a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Before a motorcycle accident on Thanksgiving weekend in his senior year at the University of Georgia, he was projected to be a second-round selection. LeCounte was under his four-year rookie deal when suddenly in October last season, he was abruptly released. Perhaps keeping five safeties became a heated topic after all.
Harrison was only signed to a one-year deal, a decision the front office made very late in the process as if they weren’t certain if he fit their defense any longer. And now, he is an unrestricted free agent. Is it possible to bring him back on another one-year deal?
Delpit began the year as one of the worst defenders in the history of defenders until the bye week when somehow, someway, he learned to tackle legs instead of his usual strategy of jumping on an opponent’s shoulder pads and then hang on for the ride. Down the stretch, Delpit was one of the Browns’ best tacklers.
Johnson, the willy veteran, was often out-of-position early in the year – wait, make that for the past two years.
He also took plays off and was even seen in highlight videos purposely not attempting to tackle ball carriers. It’s true that Johnson has far underperformed. The biggest issue is that he is a true box safety, and he was inserted into the free safety slot, a position which must have speed in his toolbox. Johnson ran a 4.61 attempting to cover guys who regularly dash around in the 4.3 to 4.5 range.
In the deep zones, you can’t have one part slow whereas the other is fast. That is like the lava catching up with the dinosaurs.
Johnson’s contract was also an issue as he was about to have a cap number of $13.5 million which goes against the grain of analytics. Therefore, the decision at the season’s end was to release him outright despite one more year left on his contract.
From a football standpoint concerning centerfield, the most apparent solution was to concentrate on locating an actual free safety to bookend Delpit.
Just so happens, GM Andrew Berry was thinking the same thing. He signed Juan Thornhill (6’-1”, 203 pounds) of the Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs to a three-year, $21 million deal in free agency.
Suddenly and instantaneously, the safety room appears to be one of the roster’s best position groups.
So who is Juan Thornhill? Was this a good signing for the Browns?
Josh Klingler is a reporter for the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network. He was recently on the “Afternoon Drive” radio show on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland and since he covers the Chiefs, he gave his thoughts on Thornhill.
“There is nothing I can say bad about Thornhill. I think he is a terrific pickup. He kinda got caught up in the numbers crunch,” offered Klingler. “In a perfect world, there is no reason (the Chiefs) would not want him back. Probably coming off his best season. It’s just dollars and cents. Here in Kansas City, they have made some things based on numbers and he is now getting a Super Bowl tax bump.”
The Chiefs drafted safety Bryan Cook out of the University of Cincinnati last year in the second round. There are those who feel that the franchise was looking ahead to Thornhill’s rookie deal expiring in 2022 and instead of retaining him at a bigger contract, spending that money elsewhere.
“About three-quarters of this past season you could see he was playing his way into a nice little contract – with somebody else,” Klingler explained. “Good locker room guy and as an emerging leader. I think (Cleveland) has a good one there.”
Thornhill (age 27) went to Altavista High School in Altavista, Virginia. There, he excelled at basketball and also played quarterback and safety for the football squad.
As a point guard and just 175 pounds, he averaged 16 points a game with a field goal percentage of 41%. Thornhill was a member of Altavista’s basketball team that won three state championships as he scored more than 1,000 career points.
In football, he had offers to play safety from Duke, Virginia Tech, East Carolina, and Virginia. He had interest from smaller schools to play basketball, but his main accolades were on the gridiron.
In football, his school won back-to-back titles as a junior and senior. He was named First Team All-Conference both years. In his senior year alone, he was named the Group 1A VHSL State Player of the Year plus Group 1A VHSL Quarterback of the Year.
At the same time while playing safety, he earned First Team VHSL All-State honors and was named the Group 1A, Conference 44, and Region 1A-East Player of the Year. All the while he was dual enrolled in the University of Virginia’s College of Arts and Sciences.
In the 2011 State Championship Game, Thornhill finished with 99 rushing yards and 100 yards passing in the title game. The following year, he rushed for the game-winning score, a 40-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter of the state championship game.
When he had completed his high school education, Thornhill had captured five championships in two sports. As a football player, he was rated a three-star recruit by ESPN.com, Scout.com plus Rivals.com.
As good as he was at quarterback, he was exceptional as a safety. And with his height and weight, he decided to stick to the defensive side of the ball after he chose Virginia as the next stop in his athletic adventure.
Thornhill was later inducted into Altavista’s Sports Hall of Fame. His Chiefs jersey is displayed prominently in a frame inside the school’s main office. Two Super Bowl wins will do that to folks who watched him grow into an elite athlete.
He signed his commitment with the University of Virginia on National Signing Day. As a freshman, he appeared in nine of UVA’s 12 games. The next season he played in all 12 games, but this time he was the starter in 11 of those contests and led Virginia’s defense with three interceptions along with 30 tackles, one sack, and seven pass defenses.
From there, Thornhill was the full-time starter at free safety. As a junior, he started 12 of 13 games as a lower extremity injury kept him out one game. For the season, he finished with 63 total tackles, 12 pass defenses along with four picks.
In his senior campaign, Thornhill really blossomed. 98 total tackles only tell some of the stories as he was always around the ball. He netted seven pass defenses with six interceptions. Those six picks enabled him to finish #3 in the nation.
Thornhill also set a Virginia single-season record for interception return yards with 141 which included one interception for a career-long 62 yards plus a 54-yard interception return in a bowl game.
When his college career had concluded, Thornhill had been named First Team All-ACC (2018), Third Team All-ACC (2017), College Football News All-America, Associated Press All-ACC (2018), Pro Football Focus (PFF) All-ACC (2018), Athlon Sports All-ACC (2018), Nagurski Trophy Watch List, Bednarik Award Watch List, plus was a Reese’s Senior Bowl Invitee.
At the NFL Combine, Thornhill ran a 4.42 in the 40, had a 44-inch vertical jump plus an 11-foot-9 broad jump, and posted good marks in the agility drills as well.
He was taken with the 63rd overall pick in Round 2 of the 2019 NFL college draft. Kansas City traded up with the Los Angeles Rams in order to select him. He signed a four-year $4.64 million deal with $1.79 guaranteed and a signing bonus of $1.37 million.
FS Daniel Sorensen was a mainstay in the defensive backfield, so Thornhill played sparingly but learned from Sorensen as his mentor. When he finally got his first start, he recorded tackles. Six weeks later, he got his first NFL interception when he picked off Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans. Seven weeks later, an errant Derek Carr pass ended up a Thornhill pick-six against the Oakland Raiders.
In December, he tore his left ACL in a game against the Los Angeles Chargers. This meant he missed all of the playoff games and was a spectator in his first Super Bowl, a Chiefs victory.
In his second season, he found himself as more of a nickel guy. Throughout that year, he had to fight his way back into the starting rotation. Kansas City reached its second consecutive Super Bowl but lost 31-9 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady.
Last year, Thornhill had his best total tackles tally so far as a pro with 71. He also had his best pass defenses total with nine along with three interceptions. He won his second Super Bowl in four years when the Chiefs met the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII and won 38-35. This time, Thornhill was a prominent member of the defense and had five tackles and one pass defense in the victory.
During his four years in Kansas City, his stats include 234 total tackles, 20 pass defenses, eight picks, five tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and four QB hits.
Thornhill has posted an 82.4 PFF coverage grade since 2019, which ranks 11th among all safeties in that span.
The free safety position is one that requires speed because this position has to help contain wide receivers. Thornhill runs a 4.42 in the 40 and he doesn’t miss many tackles.
So what can Browns fans expect from Thornhill?
He is active with pass breakups. He is a leader in the locker room, something that Cleveland has been lacking for the past couple of years. Thornhill’s ability to defend the pass increased this past season and he is a good tackler. Plus, he is an aggressive free safety.
With the Browns hiring a safety position coach in Ephraim Banda this off-season, expect Thornhill’s aggressive behavior to increase exponentially.
Banda is an exceptional safeties coach, and the fact that DC Jim Schwartz wanted one man to take on this group instead of having to concern himself with both corners and safeties will pay off in huge dividends going forward.
GM Berry could have paid more than double for the talents of Jessie Bates, but instead, he made sure to match the value of the contract with the talent of a player such as Thornhill.
The Browns are now looking very good with the safety group. Delpit and Thornhill will make a forbidding pair with Bell and Bolden as backups, or whoever else Berry signs to this group. Bolden played for Banda while at Miami.
Thornhill is a great signing for Cleveland. It allows Schwartz to move Delpit around as Thornhill can roam free all the while with the knowledge that there is adequate safety coverage over the top in the deep zone.
With Kansas City, he was caught in a salary cap situation in which he could take less money and stay where he was, or reach out in free agency and get his worth. The Chiefs wanted him back without question.
Now he is with the Browns. And he comes with the bonus of having been involved in three Super Bowls. Having a player show up in the locker room wearing rings can only boost the overall production of the roster. Now, they can see firsthand what winning championships in today’s landscape looks like up close. It is an instant motivator.
The Browns have finally found their true centerfielder that excels in coverage and will not allow the huge plays that plagued them the past two seasons with wide-ass open receivers.
That, Browns fans, stopped when they hired Banda, plus the move to ink Thornhill.
As a Browns fan, how would you rate the signing of Thornhill?
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